First responders explain importance of water safety ahead of Memorial Day weekend in Utah

Jonathan Wagstaff, owner of Deer Creek Island Resort, right, helps Gabe Allen, 5, off a rental boat at the resort in Heber City on Thursday. Also on the boat are Madeline Allen, 9, Kaden Allen, 11, Evelyn Allen, 9, and their mother, Alise Allen, left to right.

Jonathan Wagstaff, owner of Deer Creek Island Resort, right, helps Gabe Allen, 5, off a rental boat at the resort in Heber City on Thursday. Also on the boat are Madeline Allen, 9, Kaden Allen, 11, Evelyn Allen, 9, and their mother, Alise Allen, left to right. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)


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Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

HEBER CITY — Talem Franco remembers being unable to save his older brother, who had been struggling in the water at the Deer Creek Island Resort, when he was 16. His brother, Kalem Franco, drowned almost 11 years ago.

He and his older brother had come to the resort after a lifting session with the football team. The group had one life jacket, which Franco's little brother wore as most of the group swam out toward a rope swing on an island. Talem Franco stayed by the shore throwing rocks because he was sore. He saw his older brother drowning, and ran to find someone with a phone so he could call for help.

"I was trying to figure out how to help, but at the same time, I knew that if I went in there, it would probably end up happening to me, because I was exhausted," Franco recalled.

His story emphasizes the importance of wearing life jackets, especially in circumstances where it may be hard to gauge a distance.

"Wearing life jackets can save lives — and it does," Franco said Thursday. "And I feel like it is important, especially for people who aren't aware of their limits, especially for teenagers."

Heber Valley Hospital, Utah State Parks and Wasatch County Search and Rescue gathered at the Deer Island Creek Resort to raise awareness about water safety prior to the Memorial Day weekend, which usually kicks off swimming and boating season in Utah. They also gave life jackets to community members and talked to them about safety.

Kam Kohler, a commander at Wasatch County Search and Rescue, said they want people to come and have fun on the water, but people need to remember safety, first. He said this means using a life jacket or a personal flotation device any time they're in the water.

"When the kids go on the water, they're protected with that no matter how bad things turn. With a life jacket, you can still manage the event," Kohler said.

A flotation device can help people survive until help comes. Having a floating paddle board or a life jacket tied to a paddle board is not enough because it can get blown out of reach when the wind picks up, he said.

"We don't want people to rely on search and rescue because ... you've been in the water for 20 minutes by the time we get here, so, we're not coming to rescue you. When you go out on the water — think safety," Kohler said.

In the 24 years he has been working for search and rescue, he has never gone out to look for someone who was wearing a life jacket.

"Just that simple safety device on you makes all the difference," Kohler said.

In 2020, Utah experienced 45 unintentional drownings, the highest in a decade, according to Utah Department of Health data, which also show there has been an average of 33 drowning deaths each year in the last five years. A majority of these deaths happened in open bodies of water, just like Deer Creek Reservoir in the Heber Valley.

Utah State Parks Lt. Drew Patterson said that last year, there were 10 drowning deaths in Utah, showing an improvement from the previous year, but with a rocky start to 2022, it is looking like this year could be very different. So far, there have been seven drowning deaths in the state. Patterson said a life jacket could have prevented six of those seven deaths.

Many people don't realize that Utah's lakes are cold water lakes and are often caught off-guard, he said, adding that if people fall from a watercraft or floatation device, into the cold water, the body's natural reaction is to gasp.

"You're not going to be able to control your breathing for at least a minute, you know, so that's when people get in trouble," Patterson said.

When people have life jackets nearby but aren't wearing them, they may not be able to find it when they are struggling, he said.

On the water in Utah, people under 13 are required to wear life jackets, and people over 13 are required to have a life jacket readily available.

Jessica Strong, community health director at Primary Children's Hospital, stressed the importance of adult supervision in addition to life jackets.

She suggests having one adult assigned to be the "water watcher" at all times. She had a card hanging around her neck as an example of how to designate a "water watcher" and said families could also use something like a silly hat as a reminder that an adult is assigned to watch the water and should pay attention.

In the event that someone is drowning, especially in water that is swift moving, she said the best thing to do is throw something they can grab, like a life jacket, a rope or a branch. If someone is drowning, they are almost always likely to pull someone else down with them.

Strong said drowning is the second leading cause of death for kids under age 14 in Utah. Young children are more likely to drown at home, older children are more likely to drown at a public pool, and teenagers are more likely to drown in open bodies of water, she said.

She said teenagers often overestimate their abilities, are more susceptible to peer pressure, don't always have great judgment and are impulsive — and there may sometimes be drugs or alcohol involved. She said parents shouldn't stop watching their children when they get older just because they have had experience in the water.

Life jackets should be U.S. Coast Guard approved, as many available at large stores are. Strong said arm flotation devices are not sufficient on their own, since they can deflate or slip off. Life jackets, especially for children, should be snug across their bodies. After tightening, if you lift up on the jacket's shoulders, it should not come up as high as the ear, or the jacket is too big.

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Emily Ashcraft joined KSL.com as a reporter in 2021. She covers courts and legal affairs, as well as health, faith and religion news.

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